So last week, MasterChef US finally launched on Fox television, hot on the heels of our own record-setting Australian franchise. And it was a fascinating look to see how the show recreated itself in an American mould, with Gordon Ramsay as the main draw. It’s fascinating for both its similarities and differences.
The biggest alteration is that the US version is only a weekly show that I’ve heard will run a dozen or so weeks, rather than the six-day-a-week onslaught of the Australian version. And given the tight timeframe for so much activity, there’s heaps of editing, and packing comments into sound bites to fit everything into neat one-hour weekly episodes. That’s a bit of a shame – it makes the drama feel sudden, brief and staged. Unlike the Australian show, it doesn’t allows enough time for viewers to get to really know the contestants, empathise with them and get involved in their daily lives. Instead, it’s a bit too wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am standard reality TV. The good news? I don’t have to be glued to the TV every night.
The choice of judges are clever, however. Ramsay was the no-brainer choice, given his strong following in the US and his TV savvy – and let’s face it, he’s guaranteed to produce fireworks. He’s joined by Joe Bastianich, a fantastic choice who’s the business brains behind Mario Batali’s ever-growing restaurant empire, whose dozen eateries include New York City’s Babbo, Lupa, Del Posto, Casa Mono and LA’s Osteria Mozza. Bastianich is intelligent, formidable and critical, but without a hint of the sensational that occasionally pops up with Ramsay. It’s also notable to mention that Bastianich is a restaurateur joined by two celeb chefs as co-judges, so there’s no direct replacement for the critic’s shoes – or should that be critic’s cravat? – of Matt Preston.
The yet-unproven selection is Graham Elliot Bowles, who entered America’s celeb chef ranks at age 27 (he’s now 33) after he received four stars by the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Magazine during his time as chef at Avenues at the Peninsula Chicago. Most of the PR spin glosses over the fact that Bowles’ move to his own, dressed-down ‘bistronomic’ restaurant (sounds a bit like glorified ‘gastropub’), called Graham Elliot, received a more earthly two stars by the Tribune. Bowles, a very big man in Alvin Quah-like white glasses, was fun to watch on Top Chef Masters as he jostled and joked with WD-50’s Wylie Dufresne, but on MasterChef he’s the least audible judge and seems to be overwhelmed by his more-experienced counterparts. One can only hope that he gains more confidence as time goes by, and he does begin to get slightly more vocal and defiant by the second episode, which aired the other night. Mostly though, he’s currently just the jovial and gentle fat guy who exerts what, to his fellow judges, seems to be occasional lapses in judgement. This is TV, however, and who knows what’s been left on the busy editing floor.
What makes the show entertaining from an Australian perspective is its only-in-America moments. As expected from a US reality show, there are the stereotypical, cringe-worthy moments: fist pumping, high-fiving, unearned bravado, some crazy-ass head moves and try-hard questions like “Are you gonna bring it?” I was almost feeling like a self-loathing American (I’m a native New Yorker turned Sydney boy) until I got to watch some of the delightful characters. My favourite is Avery, an African-American cook from Louisiana, who when tasting her Cajun specialties utters phrases like, “Mmmm. Slap your momma!” and “Makes your tongue slap your brain.” She presented her catfish Arcadia over angel-hair pasta in white gloves and a genteel, “I pray that this is pleasing to your palates.” That said, she doesn’t seem the type to make it to the finish line, with the kind of presentation-challenged, brown food that New Orleans cuisine regularly produces – and I say that from a position of loving Cajun and Creole food. “I hope it tastes better than it looks,” Gordon says before diving in.
It’s immediately obvious that the US will not be as kind and supportive at the Australian version; neither good or bad, but distinctly different and more cutting. Ramsay, as expected, is the most frequent attack dog. “That’s the most disgusting soup I’ve ever tasted in my life,” he spews about a dodgy looking beer cheese soup. When critiquing a yucca-encrusted snapper by a contestant who hypes her love for dating chefs, he admonishes: “My advice? Continue dating chefs because you’re never going to be one.” Ouch.
A good deal of the show is a duplicate of MasterChef Australia, which can make it feel cliché at times. Cooking food for the military. Check. Chopping onions to whittle the field. Check. Even the tryouts are similar. From my own experience as a contestant in the season one tryouts in Melbourne, I noticed the typical bollocking from the chefs to the contestants in feigned frustration that no-one is making the grade. Then there’s the contestant selected by the producers to be the comedy act for the camera, this time in the form of Suzette, a supposed former pro soccer player for Brazil (but with an obvious American accent), who shows a bit of flesh and flirts heavily with Ramsay. “I was a forward. If you were a back, I’d take you on.” And forget about thinking that Australians are soft – the Yanks cry just as much as their counterparts.
Oh, and like the molecular dude from MasterChef Australia’s first season, Aaron, there’s also the guy you love to hate. Here it’s David Miller from Boston, a software engineer who runs around manic like he’s strung out on smack, shouts out ‘blam!’ while cooking as if he’s Emeril Lagasse’s retarded brother, revels about being overconfident, and laughs a mock hyena laugh. For his audition, he cooks a New England-style bouillabaisse, and pronounces words like “Provence,” and “crouton” with an exaggerated ‘r’ that should require a sick bag. Yes, I despise him already.
It’s times like these that it’s a pleasure to have Ramsay on the show, who goes straight for the jugular. “Are you acting, or are you trying to be normal?” he taunts, then points out it takes two days to make a perfect bouillabaisse. He also takes on Miller’s French pronunciations by engaging him in French, which the engineer expectedly can’t understand. The smackdown continues as Ramsay berates Miller’s ill-gotten confidence. “When you’re good at something, it creates confidence. When you’re insecure about something it creates an arrogance,” Ramsay fumes. “Arrogant chefs are like blondes in Hollywood.” The end result sees Miller bawling in front of the trio, which gains enough sympathy from the judges to give him a MasterChef apron. Upon exiting, he instantly reverts from sobbing to screaming wildly like he’s just won the Super Bowl. I hate him more, and I’m certain the producers wanted me to feel that way, just so I’ll keep watching, eager to see him go down in flames.
Early word is that the critics have regularly panned the show, but that’s not really important to the producers. What’s truly important is ratings, and so far MasterChef US has garnered strong viewer numbers: 6 million watched the debut. That’s way more than Australia’s 2 million average, but less successful if you consider population sizes. Even so, no-one in their right mind would expect a repeat of the show’s Australian dominance – the American market is far too saturated with entertainment options.
So will I keep watching the show? Definitely. Will I enjoy it? Yes, but I don’t expect it to captivate me the same way as the Australian show. It was clearly going to be hard to get a US network to commit to programming six days a week, but the result is that US MasterChef feels merely like mindless entertainment. That’s a far cry from MasterChef Australia, which to those of us who watched religiously, was not only more educational but also felt more like an extension of the family.